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Imposing liability on protest organizers could breach First Amendment rights

Danielle Smith
18 May 2024

In a blow to free speech and the right to assemble, the U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear a case involving the rights of protest organizers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

McKesson v. Doe stemmed from protests over the 2016 police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A protest organizer faced charges after a police officer was injured by the actions of an unknown protester.

Cicley Gay, board chairwoman of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, said an opinion by the Fifth Circuit now stands, allowing an organizer to be held liable for the individual actions of others at a protest based on negligence.

"This case without question infringes upon all of our First Amendment rights," Gay contended. "It's incumbent upon us to reject its premise and its intention, which is, frankly, to scare champions of justice and organizers away from mass protest."

The Fifth Circuit covers Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, and Gay noted the First Amendment still protects the right to assembly. Black Lives Matter protests have attracted diverse groups of people and a Harvard study shows 26 million participated in protests in 2020.

Protesting at college campuses across the country has been on the rise, with students complaining law enforcement involvement has made matters worse. Gay argued it is important for Mississippians to remember Martin Luther King Jr. and understand protest is at the core of every successful social movement in this country.

"We want our young people to be able to continue to raise their voices," Gay emphasized. "Oftentimes, protest is not pretty. It is intended to disrupt. And as long as people are doing it peacefully, they should be entitled to do so."

Gay stressed the Fifth Circuit decision essentially eliminates the right to organize a mass protest because organizers could be held financially liable if even one protester commits an illegal act.

Mississippi News Connection

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